By Julie Turkewitz
Ingrid Betancourt, a former congresswoman and one-time guerrilla hostage who has come to symbolize both the brutality of Colombia’s long war and the country’s efforts at reconciliation, will run for president, she said Tuesday.
Betancourt enters a wide open race at a time when Colombia is at a critical political and social crossroads.
When she was kidnapped 20 years ago, Betancourt was campaigning for the same office. Now, she said, the country is facing the same “corrupt system” and “political machinery” that she had fought back then.
“Today I am here to finish what I started,” she said, standing on a stage at a hotel in downtown Bogotá, the country’s capital, flanked by allies.
Betancourt, who was captured in 2002 and held by the country’s largest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, for more than six years, announced her bid for the May election with the country facing enormous challenges.
Following more than 50 years of war, the government and the rebel group, known as FARC, signed a peace deal in 2016. But since then, a swell of other armed groups have swept into the vacuum and continued to fight.
Violence has surged in parts of the countryside — and critics have faulted the government for not investing enough to address the inequality and poverty that had helped fuel the war, as it had committed to doing in the peace deal.
Many in Colombia are fed up with the political status quo, a sentiment that burst into the public sphere last May, when thousands took to the streets for more than a month to protest hardship that was only made worse by the pandemic.
Following her years in captivity — when she was sometimes held in chains — she has both supported the peace process and criticized the FARC, emerging as a symbol of national attempts to acknowledge the costs of the war, but also to move beyond it.
Sergio Guzmán, an analyst in Bogotá, called Betancourt the country’s “reconciliation candidate.”
In an interview with The New York Times last year, Betancourt called the peace deal “a window — a generational opportunity — to leave behind the insane violence we have lived in all our lives.”
The question, Guzmán said, is whether that is what Colombians want.
“All our elections have been fear and hope and hate,” he went on. “No election has really been fought on compassion and reconciliation.”
There is widespread discontent with the current president, Iván Duque, who is a product of the country’s right-wing political establishment, while a left-wing populist, Gustavo Petro, is leading in the polls amid a leftist, anti-incumbent wave that is sweeping Latin America.
“Can Ingrid become a balm to those prevailing negative emotions that we’re feeling right now?” he said. “I don’t know. That’s one of the things that her candidacy is going to tell us.”
But to make any headway among voters, he said, “she needs to sell the idea that reconciliation is better than populism.”
While Betancourt is widely known throughout the country, a win in May is far from certain.
Today, there are more than 20 candidates for the presidency, with most of the best-known candidates grouped into three coalitions: a coalition on the left, headed by Petro; a coalition in the center, which Betancourt is joining; and a coalition on the right, whose members are seen as the torchbearers for the current government.
To even get to the May election, Betancourt would first have to win the March primary, in which she will compete against others in the center, including Alejandro Gaviria, a former health minister and recent head of a prestigious university.
Guzmán pointed out that Betancourt joined the race late in the electoral calendar and called her bid “a Hail Mary.”
Colombia has never had a woman president, and Betancourt is one of just four female candidates in the three leading coalitions.
The most prominent female candidate to this point has been Francia Márquez, a young, Afro-Colombian politician and environmental activist who is also a victim of the war.
Márquez, who has joined the coalition on the left, has distinguished herself not only because of her identity — Colombian politics has been dominated by wealthy white men — but because of her outspoken embrace of feminist politics and willingness to criticize Petro.
Betancourt is the daughter of a Colombian politician and a Colombian diplomat, and later became a French citizen through her first husband.
In 2002, following time in Congress, Betancourt launched a campaign for presidency as a member of the Partido Verde Oxígeno, a young political movement with a pacificist, environmental, anti-corruption philosophy. On Feb. 23, 2002, she was traveling to a campaign event in the city of San Vicente del Caguán, when she was stopped at a roadblock and taken hostage by FARC.
During her years in captivity in the jungle, she was treated brutally and tried to escape repeatedly, experiences she recounted in her book “Even Silence Has An End.”
She was eventually rescued by the Colombian government, and over the years she has emerged as the country’s best-known victim. But she has also been the subject of criticism — from those who say she has taken attention away from poorer, lesser known victims, and from others who have criticized her for seeking compensation from the Colombian government following her captivity and rescue.
Betancourt has lived in France for years and returned to Colombia just months ago. In her campaign speech, she directly addressed criticism that the move was designed for personal political benefit.
“I have returned in search of the highest political benefit,” she said, “that all of us can have a true democracy.”
Her campaign announcement said little about policy proposals beyond repeated vows to fight corruption — and to address the effect of violence on the country.
“My story is the story of all Colombians,” she said.
In a country of more than 50 million people, 9 million are registered with the government as conflict victims.
“While the FARC enslaved me and my companions, the drug cartels, violent groups and corrupt politicians enslaved each of you,” she went on.
“We are going to leave behind this culture of mafias, violence and lies, and we are going to learn again to be free citizens.”